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Does brain training really work? Scientists say this is the only type that works

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We’ve all heard of apps and online courses that can help to improve our memory and cognition, but until now, there’s been no group to review these programs to show which ones work – and which ones don’t.

Now Australian researchers have done a review of studies into brain training programs being marketed at older adults.

Their findings? Most brain training only makes you better at the exercises themselves – not at real-life tasks. Of the 18 programs studied, 11 had no evidence to back up their use.

But there was good news.

For the seven that did have evidence to support their use, two were backed by multiple studies – BrainHQ and Cognifit.

Why do they work then?

Because both are based on training that focuses on improving your processing speed – the speed and accuracy with which your brain processes information.

For example, you see an image in the centre of your vision and then another image way off in your peripheral vision. Both are only on screen for less than a second. You then have to say whether you saw the centre image and show where you saw the peripheral image.

This challenges the speed and accuracy of your visual system – and as you get more accurate, the speed increases and the peripheral task gets harder to push your system further.

In short, this process – called neuroplasticity – forms new neuropathways in your brain which you can then call on in real life so for example, you can hear what someone says in a noisy restaurant, see what’s happening on the edge of your peripheral vision or remember all the digits of a phone number.

So what if you don’t want to give one of these scientifically-backed programs a go?

Dr. Henry Mahncke, the CEO of Posit Science which makes BrainHQ, does offer a few tips to encourage your brain to make these changes in your daily life:

  • Learn a new skill – and don’t stick the same old hobby: “If you’ve been doing crossword puzzles for 10 years, pick something new – and really different – and work at it 2-3 hours per week, even though it will be hard. My mom started harpsichord lessons – and practiced a lot! It was great for her brain: the speed and accuracy of listening and finger movements are a good form of brain exercise.”
  • Travel – even if it’s just around your own neighbourhood: “Find a new way to the grocery store, or the long way to your favourite park. Focus on noticing new landmarks, different sounds (and smells?) and putting together and more detailed mental map of your own neighbourhood. As soon as a route gets familiar, find a new one. This engages your brain’s hippocampus – the seat of learning and memory.”
  • Be active and maintain healthy blood pressure in middle age: “It’s going to be harder to maintain a sharp brain if your body is diverting its energy to fighting other elements in your body, like high blood pressure. So, avoid consuming too much salt and get out there for a walk or a run.”

Sounds like solid advice to us.

Picture: Could learning guitar stop your brain from ageing? A scene from the 1984 rockumentary ‘This is Spinal Tap’.

Lauren Broomham

Lauren is a journalist for villages.com.au, agedcare101 and The Donaldson Sisters. Growing up in a big family in small town communities, she has always had a love for the written word, joining her local library at the age of six months. With over eight years' experience in writing and editing, she is a keen follower of news and current affairs with a nose for a good story.


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